Hometown boy: Pitt's Adams is big in Oakland and Auckland, but for different reasons
March 17, 2013 4:00 PM
The puppet cutout - the brainchild of two Pitt students in the Oakland Zoo - was popular "garnish" for the visiting TV team.
After a weekend of anxious moments, New Zealand TV reporter Jack Tame, right, finally got the sitdown with Steven Adams that he came for two weeks ago.
Tame and Adams in the Pitt locker room with a cutout of Adams' girlfriend that the student section in Cincinnati were using to distract him.
By J. Brady McCollough Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Every weeknight in New Zealand, on the country's flagship television station TV ONE, a show called, "Seven Sharp" airs with the purpose of informing the small island nation about current affairs using an entertaining, quick-hitting format.
Since the show began in February, having replaced a more traditional news program, it has received mixed reviews.
Right now, compelling content is desperately needed. So when an airplane carrying Television New Zealand reporter Jack Tame and cameraman Douglas Higginbotham hit the tarmac at Pittsburgh International Airport, it was imperative that they stick the landing.
This assignment had all the elements for "Seven Sharp." A 7-foot tall New Zealander playing basketball for a university in an American city called Pittsburgh. A 19-year-old with size-19 shoes, inhabiting a new world, enjoying a pit stop on the way to his NBA dream. It is likely that Steven Adams, this young man from roughneck Rotorua, eventually will be a millionaire, and it is Tame's job to bring his story to light for hundreds of thousands of viewers back home.
Tame, 26, a native of Christchurch, New Zealand, certainly won't be star-struck by the goofy teenager. The week before, he was on the red carpet at the Oscars delivering his monologue in a tux. Rail thin with bright blue eyes and a mop of brown hair, Tame recently was named New Zealand's Sexiest Male Media Personality.
Tame and Higginbotham, who live in New York, didn't know what to expect from Pittsburgh. They were to spend Saturday afternoon with Adams touring campus and then take in his game Sunday at Petersen Events Center against Villanova.
They pick up their rental car and head toward Oakland, where Adams is pushing through another grueling Jamie Dixon practice.
At Pitt, Tame is met outside the arena by sports information director Greg Hotchkiss, who's a bit flustered as they introduce themselves.
"Steve hurt his ankle at practice today," Hotchkiss says.
It's the latest snag in a year full of adjustments for Adams.
Hotchkiss cautions Tame that they might not be able to talk to Adams as planned because he is worried about his ankle and possibly missing the game.
"It's OK," Tame says in his bubbly Kiwi accent. "It's Murphy's Law."
The rise to celebrity
The first time Steven Adams appeared in the media was because of his sister. Valerie Vili-Adams, nine years his senior, was becoming a big name in New Zealand thanks to her ability to hurl a shot put farther than most women in the world. Steven, then in his early teens, was included in a photo of Valerie's family.
And what a family it was. Sid Adams, an abnormally tall Englishman who settled in New Zealand after serving in the Royal Navy, had 18 children, the males averaging a height of 6 feet 9 and the females 6 feet. Brothers Warren and Ralph had played professional basketball in New Zealand, and there was Valerie working toward the Olympic gold medals she would win in 2008 and 2012.
With those genes, Steven, the youngest of Sid's children, was destined to be a top athlete, but it would take years for him to embrace his precious DNA.
In 2006, when Steven was 13, his father died of cancer, which sent Steven's life spiraling out of control. He began skipping school, roaming the streets of Rotorua, a city of about 56,000 sometimes called "rotten-rua" because of the industrial smell of sulphur that permeates the air.
Steven's relatives had to step in. He moved in with brother Warren 300 miles away in the city of Wellington, where Steven started playing organized basketball for Kenny McFadden, a former player at Washington State, and enrolled at one of the top high schools in the country, Scots College, to fix his academic ailments. Warren had played pro ball in New Zealand with Dixon, so it was natural that Steven would commit to Pitt after sprouting to 7 feet.
He didn't receive much fanfare in New Zealand, where rugby, cricket and soccer rule the sporting scene. When he arrived in the United States in January 2012 to attend Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass., for a few months, he was shocked at the attention his performances garnered.
Of course, that would be nothing compared to Pitt, where his arrival had been anticipated for more than two years.
"He was kind of a celebrity before he even got here," Dixon says. "It's a whole new world. Bringing attention to yourself is something that isn't looked upon as the right way to do things in New Zealand."
Dixon knew that this princely existence could be tough to handle for a Rotorua kid who had been trained in basketball and school but not quite as much in American social niceties.
All of a sudden, everybody cared what Adams was doing and saying, and he often wasn't doing and saying the right things.
"The sense of humor is way different," Adams says. "When I got here, people were trying to teach me not to say some of the words that I say because it's apparently politically incorrect. The main thing in New Zealand is that nobody cares."
Adams can come off as raw on and off the court. He has a gold tooth, proudly maintains a mustache and is blessed with a linebacker's forehead. Like his countrymen, his natural dialect is littered with curse words, and the constant editing of himself has been hard.
To help ease the transition, Dixon set up Adams with Chris O'Donnell, a medical researcher at Pitt who is from Palmerston North, New Zealand. O'Donnell and his wife are Pitt season-ticket holders, and they had wanted to reach out to Adams from the moment he signed with the Panthers. Around Christmas, they had Adams and his girlfriend, also a Kiwi, over for dinner. O'Donnell was not surprised that they immediately hit it off.
"You sort of have an instant rapport," O'Donnell says. "In this country, you'll have people in New England and people in the South, and they'll speak a completely different language. That doesn't really happen in New Zealand. You can instantly get on with someone, and you'll have experienced many of the same cultural things. We're relatively isolated from the rest of the world."
Adams could be himself with O'Donnell, who understood the clash of cultures.
"We never really say what we mean," O'Donnell says, "and we both use understatement and hyperbole. There's always a subtle twist on it."
He gives an example: Say someone walked in the room with a lump on their face.
"In this culture, everybody would not want to say something in case it was domestic violence, or you'd keep personal space from it," O'Donnell says. "A New Zealander might say, 'You better look out for doors where you're going.' It's sort of a way that makes communication easy and more comfortable."
Adams has made the best of his situation, becoming friends with his Pitt teammates and gracing them with random riffs on his ukulele. Still, as this season comes to a close, he is unquestionably homesick, craving his native food, family and friends.
Tame is here to, at the very least, take Adams back to New Zealand for about six TV minutes.
A 'big-time' place
Hotchkiss does not want to disappoint anyone. He knows Tame and Higginbotham have come a day before the Villanova game because they were told they could interview Adams. Hotchkiss also knows that Adams is not in a good mood because of the ankle, and his first priority is to do right by the player.
Tame, believing in the power of shared roots, asks Hotchkiss if he can just talk to Adams as one Kiwi to another and possibly persuade him to cooperate.
"It might just put him at ease a little bit," Tame offers.
Hotchkiss says that he will let the trainers work on Adams first. As the controller of sports information, Hotchkiss already is predicting that someone will see Adams on crutches as soon as he leaves the arena and spread the gossip on social media, setting off a fire storm.
To Tame, the fact that college athletics exist as they do in America is mind-blowing.
In New Zealand, there is no organized sports competition between colleges. Obsessive pride in one's university is a foreign concept. New Zealanders go to college to learn and don't think that their particular institution is much different than the one down the road.
In America, victories by the ol' alma mater make alums feel better about themselves, and those wins cost a pretty penny.
"This is big time," Hotchkiss explains to Tame. "Our basketball program generates around $6 million a year. Every seat in the arena is sold out. On each seat, you have to donate money to Pitt and then buy your ticket. The average donation is like $500. People sitting court side, those are millionaires down there giving lots of money to Pitt. It's big bucks."
Hotchkiss tells Tame that Pitt will make an additional $11 million each year from TV money by moving from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season. Tame is laughing hysterically.
"That's amazing!" Tame says.
Tame is trying to soak up all of this. Each Pitt athlete has tutors available to help them stay eligible to play their sport. Several times each season, the Pitt basketball team will travel to an away game on a private jet used by NBA teams. Dixon makes nearly $2 million a year to coach the Panthers.
Tame loves Adams' story because he has been to Rotorua. He knows how far the kid has come. Tame asks Hotchkiss again if he can get an audience with Adams.
"Just so he knows who I am," Tame says. "I'm hardly the most intimidating person on Earth."
Hotchkiss leaves his office to ask Adams and returns.
"I'm sorry, I wish this was different," Hotchkiss says. "He said he wants to do everything tomorrow."
A puppet show
By 10 in the morning, a line of Pitt students has formed outside Petersen Events Center as a light snow falls. In two hours, when the Panthers take on the Villanova Wildcats, the fans will become the 1,500-member "Oakland Zoo."
But now, they're just cold, going on adrenaline, as Tame and Higginbotham approach. The goal? To find some girls to talk about how dreamy Adams is and to talk to those guys over there with the giant puppet of Adams.
The puppet first made an appearance at the Notre Dame home game. It features a cardboard cutout of Adams in uniform, showing a big grin, and arms that can be waved to the left and right as the perfect backdrop for the opposing team's free-throw attempts. In short, it is exactly what college basketball is all about -- creative and zany fans.
Martin Suman, a freshman from Las Vegas, and Zachary Pattison, a freshman from Allentown, Pa., spent a couple of weekends working on the puppet.
"It was definitely a struggle," Suman says, "and we definitely had to get help from our engineer friends to figure out how to do the joints and stuff."
When Adams saw it in the stands before the Notre Dame game, Suman and Pattison remember him doubling over with laughter. They wanted their fellow freshman to feel welcome in his new land -- and mission accomplished.
Now, they're being interviewed by this skinny guy with the Kiwi accent.
"At least we'll be famous in New Zealand," Suman says.
Word has leaked that Adams injured his ankle, and the pregame intrigue centers on whether he will play.
He has not been a dominant player as many had predicted -- Adams was one of the top-rated players in the country coming out of high school -- but his presence on the floor has still been a big part of Pitt's success. There aren't many big men in college basketball who possess his combination of size and athleticism; it's just a matter of having him relax enough in games to do the things he has learned in practice.
Adams dresses for the game, but in warm-ups, he looks tentative on the tender ankle. When it becomes clear that he won't play, Tame is disappointed, but they can always get highlight footage from Hotchkiss for their broadcast.
While Adams spends the afternoon cheering on his teammates, Tame roams the Oakland Zoo and finds a student who flies a New Zealand flag. Tame is impressed with the energy of the students and the building, the pageantry of the pep band and cheerleaders.
With all of that, basketball is almost secondary, but the game heats up as the Panthers fight back from a small deficit to send the game to overtime. They'll win it, taking a step toward a higher seed in the Big East Conference and NCAA tournaments.
For the TV NZ crew, all that matters now is getting some time with Adams in the three hours they have left before they have to head for the airport.
"We've got all the garnish," Higginbotham says.
At 3:40 p.m., as Tame and Higginbotham set up the interview on the court, Adams walks through the tunnel, ready for his close-up.
Adams sits uncomfortably in a chair at half-court, speaking softly and succinctly about a litany of topics: the game ("It was exciting, dog"), the Big East standings (he doesn't know them), the food (he misses New Zealand's sausage rolls), being a star (it's weird), the chartered jets (he loves the M&Ms provided) and road games (the student sections talk so much!).
Tame is attempting to loosen up the teenager, and when he gets to the big topic, the prospect of Adams being a millionaire in the NBA, he's more persistent in getting answers.
"People in New Zealand think the NBA is the pinnacle," Tame says. "You must think of the money. Does that come across your head at all?"
"That's the thing," Adams says. "I've been talking to players on our team and outside of our team as well, and the main problem is they're trying to help their family and stuff. The main issue is money. I'm trying to do that as well, but at the same time, I'm trying to become like my sister. You know how she's, like, the man in shot put? I'm trying to be the man in basketball."
"That's such a mature response," Tame says. "If you get the sport right, the other stuff will follow."
"I feel that when you start being selfish and stuff like that ... I just read so many articles about players in the NBA and rugby players that do it for the money and it all breaks down," Adams says. "They just end up being, not bums, but not having what they could have had. I'm just trying to learn from everyone else."
These answers will warm the hearts of Pitt fans, who are hoping Adams will stick around to lead them into the ACC next season.
Adams seems to have found his groove, and as Tame performs his cutaways -- he repeats a bunch of his questions from a different camera angle so that it seems to viewers as if TV NZ has two cameras -- Adams can't stop chuckling.
"This is my job," Tame says playfully. "Shut up."
All of a sudden, Adams starts to play host. He takes his visitors into the Pitt locker room, showing them some of the perks. Then he leads them to the showers and points out a red loofah hanging there -- "It's only 50 cents, bro," he says -- and then makes note of one of the bathroom stalls.
"That's my urinal," he says, and the room breaks into laughter.
This Rotorua kid is coming out now, and, of course, he's hungry. Tame and Higginbotham drive Adams to a burrito spot near campus and get some footage of him staring at the Cathedral of Learning and walking down Forbes Avenue.
It's time for the crew to leave, for Adams to return to his "weird" existence. They say their goodbyes, and it's clear Tame is happy with the Adams experience.
"He's a great guy," Tame says. "He comes off like a Kiwi teenager."
A star is born
Last week, at 7 p.m. Monday in New Zealand and 1 a.m. Monday in Pittsburgh, Tame's piece on Adams went prime time.
What made the cut? Among other things, the Pitt students and their puppet; a few uncensored examples of Adams' penchant for profanity; and the raucous Petersen Events Center.
"The atmosphere here is just unlike any super rugby game," Tame says, "unlike any sports game in New Zealand. It's as though the crowd is in a state of near-permanent delirium!"
Adams is portrayed as an "unpretentious Kiwi teenager" who is destined to "make millions" in the NBA.
"So excited for him," the show's studio co-host, Alison Mau, says at the end of the segment. "So excited."
Adams is excited to go home for the first time in 15 months this summer. But will it be the same, now that he's been introduced to all of New Zealand?
"I feel like cleaning," Adams says. "It's really weird. I miss doing, like, chores, family chores. I miss the farm a lot."
When he returns to the island, he won't have any grand plans, and he'll be glad to simply spend time catching up with family. The big picture -- the potential for college basketball stardom and a lucrative NBA career -- will be better left in Pittsburgh.